County ARPA funds remain fierce topic of debate

BOCC votes to take standard allowance on federal relief funds, but whether the county will spend the $8.8 million is yet to be seen

By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Reader Staff

Bonner County will take a standard allowance of $10 million revenue loss as part of its annual reporting requirement for the acceptance of American Rescue Plan Act funds. Despite the commissioners’ vote April 26 on how the county will report its use of ARPA funds, it remains to be seen whether Bonner County will actually spend the $8.8 million it was allocated under the federal coronavirus relief package.

Bonner Co. Commissioners Dan McDonald, left, Jeff Connolly, center, and Steven Bradshaw, right. Photo by Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey.

Meanwhile, ARPA funds remain a topic of contention between commissioners and a group of vocal constituents who see the money as threatening Bonner County’s sovereignty during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some critics have argued that the county should cut ties with federal funding altogether.

The decision April 26 dealt specifically with how Bonner County planned to report its annual revenue losses in order to use the funds. Printed in bold on the commissioners’ agenda next to the item, a disclaimer noted: “NOT A DECISION TO SPEND OR NOT SPEND ARPA FUNDS.” The decision was instead about whether the county should take a standard allowance of $10 million in revenue loss annually, or perform a yearly full revenue loss calculation under the U.S. Treasury’s formula. Legal counsel, the county treasurer and auditor all recommended the standard allowance, according to the memo represented April 26.

“Per the [U.S.] Treasury, it presumes that recipients that have received under $10 million have sustained a revenue loss,” said Nancy Twineham, county comptroller. “Because we’re getting the $8.8 million, we are under that threshold. … We would still, if we chose to use it, have to file on an annual basis what [ARPA funds] we’ve spent on government services, and there are restrictions on the government services. We can’t use it to reduce property taxes, service debt [or] put it into pension funds. There are specific uses that we are required to follow.”

The revenue reporting decision needs to be submitted to the U.S. Treasury by April 30.

According to Commissioner Dan McDonald, “it’s less cumbersome on the county, less costly, less time consuming” to take the standard allowance. He and Commissioner Jeff Connolly — the only two commissioners in attendance at the April 26 meeting — voted to approve the recommendation.

Despite the agenda item pertaining only to reporting requirements and not actual use of ARPA funds, debate arose from critical community members.

“I have submitted a request that the current board make a decision on ARPA spending,” said Asia Williams, a staunch ARPA opponent who is running for county commissioner in District 2. “You guys have received your legal opinion, yet there’s been no decision made. … We need a decision made on this so that we know how to move forward. …The government still sees us as a recipient of that money, regardless of whether we’re spending it.”

Kendra Martin, who regularly comments against use of the ARPA money at county meetings, said she “expected more” from the commissioners when it came to denying the federal funds.

“What saddens me is that in the last six months that I’ve been pursuing this beast, I have seen elected officials suffering from the love of money, which is the root of all evil,” she said.

Bonner County Clerk Mike Rosedale said that the county simply had a decision to make regarding the reporting requirement, and whether commissioners used the money or not was not a decision he sees necessary at this point.

“This [grant] is no different than any other grant,” Rosedale said. “I’ve heard accusations all the time about this being some evil plot, and I don’t know, but the big question right now is do we take it now or do we give it back now? I say, what is the rush? Why don’t we let time prove it out? If it becomes something bad, we can give it back in the future. If it’s not bad, why give it back now?”

Constituents opposed to using ARPA funds have argued that the law’s alleged ambiguity could obligate Bonner County to adhere to future federal mandates surrounding COVID-19 mitigation — specifically, mask and vaccine mandates — if the money is spent on county business. Sheriff Daryl Wheeler sparked the concerns about “strings attached” to the money when he opted to return ARPA funds from his office’s budget in November 2021.

Commissioners passed a resolution — drafted by Williams — in January that put a hold on ARPA spending until legal counsel could provide “assurance to the public that utilization of these funds will not trigger any type of mandate, specifically vaccine and/or mask.” 

Bonner County Emergency Medical Services, which has struggled financially during the pandemic due to inflation and a dramatic upswing in call volumes, came out against the resolution, with EMS Director Jeff Lindsey calling the anti-ARPA movement “a dangerous theme that keeps getting pushed forward by some of the public.”

While EMS tapped about $800,000 in ARPA funds to purchase life-saving equipment in September 2021 — prior to Wheeler’s concerns being made public and any widespread local debate about ARPA — McDonald said on April 26 that those monies have been paid back with EMS reserve funds.

County legal counsel announced at a Feb. 16 public workshop that, after extensive research of case law and consultation with outside attorneys, the Prosecutor’s Office believed that Bonner County would not be required to enforce coronavirus-related mandates should it accept and spend ARPA funds. Despite that opinion, some constituents remain critical and commissioners have yet to spend any more of the $8.8 million.

Rosedale emphasized the April 26 decision as a step entirely separate from spending or not spending ARPA funds.

“We get, just like on your taxes, [to] choose a standard deduction, or you can itemize it. Even if you don’t have any deductions to itemize, you can still choose a standard deduction. That’s this,” he said. “This is not about spending. We’re at a fork in the road. The fact that we don’t know all the exits down this highway or all the exits down that highway is irrelevant. We are at a fork in the road, and we have to choose whether to go left or right. That’s what’s before the board.”

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